Criminal justice reform: Evidence-based policy with bipartisan appeal

Congress may not be able to approve the budget or set the debt ceiling, but there is burgeoning bipartisan consensus on the need to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system. On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123). Trumpeted as a “truly landmark piece of legislation,” the criminal justice reform bill has earned bi-partisan co-sponsorship: Senator Durbin (D-IL), Senator Cornyn (R-TX), Senator Lee (R-UT), Senator Whitehouse (D-RI), Senator Graham (R-SC), Senator Schumer (D-NY), Senator Leahy (D-VT), Senator Booker (D-NJ), Senator Scott (R-SC), Senator Tillis (R-NC), and Senator Coons (D-DE). On Thursday, members of the Judiciary Committee voted 15 to 5 to move the bill out of Committee; it could now move to a full vote on the Senate floor.

The bill would address both “front-end” and “back-end” reforms. Front-end reforms—those related to the courts and sentencing process—would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug and firearm offenders while imposing new mandatory minimums for interstate domestic violence and export-control crimes. The bill would expand the current federal safety valve to increase judicial discretion sentencing offenders with criminal histories and create a second safety valve applicable to certain low-level drug offenders.

Back-end reforms are designed to promote individuals’ successful transition from prison back to society. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 would require the Bureau of Prison (BOP) to assess and classify the recidivism risk of all inmates. BOP would use this classification to assign inmates to statistically validated recidivism reduction programs, such as job training, education programs, or drug rehabilitation. Certain prisoners who successfully complete recidivism reduction programming would become eligible to serve a portion (up to 25 percent) of the remaining sentence in a residential reentry center, in home confinement, or on community supervision.

Another provision of the bill’s back-end reform would consider the age and health of an inmate, thus providing a more measured assessment of a criminal’s risk to public safety. The “compassionate release” provision of the bill allows for certain nonviolent prisoners who are over the age of 60 or suffering from a terminal illness to be released from prison. Another provision would seal or expunge a criminal conviction for certain nonviolent juvenile offenders, enabling youthful offenders to seek employment opportunities without regard to previous activities.

Although senators occasionally sparred on the specifics of sentencing reform, the spirit of bipartisanship prevailed throughout the committee hearing. In his opening statement, Chairman Grassley (R-IA) remarked, “if we are actually going to pass reform legislation, none of us is going to be completely happy, and we are not going to do better than this [bill].” Ranking Member Patrick Leahy spoke in similarly pragmatic tones, “the bipartisan bill we introduced this month is not perfect. I would like to go further. There are many mandatory minimums this bill does not impact. But the bill does not contain everything Senator Grassley would like either. That is the nature of compromise and it is the only way we can actually take a step toward passing historic legislation.”

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 formed the basis for a companion bill, introduced in the House by Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Congressman John Conyers (D-MI), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee. With continued bipartisan, bicameral momentum, it is possible President Obama will soon have the opportunity to sign into law the “most significant criminal justice bill in a generation.”